Parliamentary boundary changes appear to be a source of confusion to many people and organisations. The facts are quite simple – parliamentary boundary changes, proposed by the various Boundary Commissions, do not take effect until the next general election. Until then, your MP remains whoever they have been, no matter what literature you may get through your letter box, or what anyone may tell you.
As one example, take Birmingham City Council. Their page on constituencies and wards correctly states that Birmingham is divided into eleven parliamentary constituencies, but then goes on to list only ten – they are listing the new constituencies which do not yet exist, as Birmingham is losing one constituency at the next election. It appears that they have organised themselves along the new boundaries in advance – which is fine, but this doesn’t affect current Parliamentary representation, and so they should explain this clearly, as otherwise members of the public get confused (and blame us for giving them the “wrong” MP, when we haven’t done so). As you can see from the maps above (which highlight Birmingham, Hall Green), the constituencies will be changing their boundaries quite a bit, and we have had reports of people receiving letters from candidates in the next election who are MPs of different neighbouring constituencies, simply referring to themselves as an MP, which is a great source of confusion.
An inhabitant of St Josephs Avenue, Birmingham (behind the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital), which is currently within the Selly Oak parliamentary constituency (red), and the Northfield ward of Birmingham City Council (green), would, on looking at Birmingham City Council’s website, assume they’re in a parliamentary constituency called Northfield. Northfield is currently the constituency to the west of Selly Oak; at the next election, its boundary with Selly Oak will change to the blue line, at which point St Josephs Avenue will be in the Northfield constituency. But not until then.
As another example (chosen purely as it has come up in user support), the Labour candidate for Streatham has a page about the constituency – obviously you would expect a candidate to be talking about the future constituency, but would it hurt to add some explanation that Streatham is currently a slightly different shape?
Boundaries of different things are all independent – if a ward boundary moves due to some local issue, the corresponding Parliamentary boundary does not necessarily change with it (probably not, in fact). So when Birmingham changed its ward boundaries back in 2003, they became out of sync with the Parliamentary constituencies. From the next election, things will be more in sync as the new Parliamentary boundaries are based on more recent ward boundaries, but this will again separate over time. All we can do is always clearly explain the current situation, and ask that others do the same.
Note: This post is a work in progress, I need your help to improve it, especially with knowledge of non-English sites
I was recently in Washington DC catching up with mySociety’s soul-mates at the Sunlight Foundation. As we talked about what was going on in the field of internet-enabled transparency, it came clear to me that there are now more identifiable categories of transparency website than there used to be.
Identifying and categorising these types of site turns out to be surprisingly useful. First, it can help people ask “Why don’t we have anyone doing that in our country?” Second, it can help mySociety to make sure that when we’re planning ahead we don’t fail to consider certain options that be currently off our radar. Also, it gives me an excuse to tell you about some sites that you may not have seen before.
Anyway, enough preamble. Here they are as I see them – please give me more suggestions as you find them. As you can see there’s a lot more activity in some fields than others.
1. Transparency blogs & newspapers – At the technically simplest, but most manual labour-intensive end of the scale is sites, commercial and volunteer driven, whose owners use transparency to help them to write stories. Given almost every political blog does this a bit, it can be hard to name specific examples, but I will note that Heather Brooke is the UK’s pre-eminent FOI-toting journalist/blogger, and we’ve just opened a blog for our awesome volunteers on WhatDoTheyKnow to show their FOI skills to an as-yet unsuspecting public.
2. What Politicians do in their parliaments – These sites primarily include lists of politicians, and information about their primary activities in their assemblies, such as voting or speaking. This encompasses mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou.com, Rob McKinnon’s one man labour of love TheyWorkForYou.co.nz, Italy’s uber-deep OpenPolis.it (6 layers of government, anyone?), Germany’s almost-un-typable Abgeordnetenwatch, Romania’s writ-wielding IPP.ro, Josh Tauberer’sGovTrack.us, plus the bonny bouncing babies OpenAustralia and Kildare Street (Ireland). Of special note here are Mzalendo (Kenya) who unlike everyone else, can’t reply on access to a parliamentary website to scrape raw data from, and Julian Todd’s UNDemocracy (International), that has to fight incredible technical barriers to get the information out.
3. Databases of questions and answers posed to politicians – These sites let people post politicians questions, and the publish the questions and answers. The Germans running Abgeordnetenwatch (Parliament Watch) seem to have had considerable success here, with newspapers citing what politicians say on their site. Yoosk has some politicians in the UK on it, too.
4. Money in politics – This comes in two forms, money given to candidates (MAPlight), and money bunged by politicians to their favourite causes (Earmark watch). In the UK, as far as I know, the Electoral Commission’s database remains currently unscraped, perhaps because the data is so ungranular.
5. Government spending – where the big money goes. In the US the dominant site is FedSpending.org, and in the UK we have ukpublicspending.co.uk.
6. Websites containing bills going through parliament, or the law as voted on – This includes the increasingly substantial OpenCongress in the US which saw major traffic during the Health Care debates, and the UK government’s own Acts database and Statute Law Database. Much of the legal database field, however, remains essentially private.
7. Services that create transparency as a side effect of delivering services – Our own sites lead the way here: FixMyStreet‘s public problem reports and WhatDoTheyKnow’s FOI archive are both created by people who aren’t primarily using the site to enrich it – they’re using it to get some other service.
8. Election websites – These come in many forms, but what they have in common is their desire to shed light on the positions and histories of candidates, whether incumbents or new comers. The biggest beast here is Stemwijzer (Netherlands), probably in relative terms the most used transparency or democracy site ever. However these sites are popular in several places, the big but highly labour intensive VoteSmart (US), Smartvote.ch (Switzerland), plus others. mySociety is shortly to start to recruit constituency volunteers to help with our take on this problem, keep an eye on this blog if you want to know more.
9. Political document archives - This is a new category, now occupied by Sunlight’s Partytime archive for invitation to political events, and TheStraightChoice, Julian Todd and Richard Pope’s wonderful new initiative for archiving election leaflets and other paper propoganda.
10. Bulk data - Online transparency pioneer Carl Malamud doesn’t do sites, he does data. Big globs zipped up and made publicly available for coders and researchers to download and process. The US government has now stepped into this field itself with Data.gov, doubtless soon to be followed by data.gov.uk.
Please don’t shoot me if I’ve missed anything here, the world is a big place. But I thought that was a useful and interesting exercise, and I hope you’ll both find it useful, and help me improve it too. Comment away.
The House of Commons debate coverage on TheyWorkForYou has recently extended back from the 2001 general election to the 1935 general election, and our knowledge of MPs now extends back to the start of the 19th century. This means TheyWorkForYou now includes things such as Anthony Eden on the Suez Canal in 1956, saying “there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt“; the debate the day after Bloody Sunday in 1972; Geoffrey Howe’s resignation statement in 1990; Neville Chamberlain on the eve and start of the second World War in 1939; and Winston Churchill‘s speeches to the House, such as We shall fight on the beaches and This was their finest hour in 1940. This and much, much more are available and searchable using our new improved advanced search, which allows you to filter by e.g. date range or person. We hope people enjoy researching this huge wealth of information (I certainly do), and add useful annotations to the text to help other people.
This would not have been possible without the original project by Parliament to digitise historical copies of Hansard and make them available, nor the internal Parliamentary project to clean up the data, match up speaker names, and so on. The project was kindly funded by the Ministry of Justice’s Innovation Fund, which also supported the creation of FixMyStreet and GroupsNearYou.
As a new edition has just been released, and I’ve had to tweak the parser to cope with the new highlighting, it’s a good time to write a brief article on TheyWorkForYou’s handling of the House of Commons Register of Members’ Financial Interests (Register of Members’ Interests as was before the current edition). Way back in the day, a scraper/parser was written (by either Julian or Francis) that monitors the Register pages on www.parliament.uk for new editions, and downloads and broadly parses the HTML into machine-readable data. The XML produced can be found at http://ukparse.kforge.net/parldata/scrapedxml/regmem/ – TheyWorkForYou then pulls in this XML into its database, and makes the latest data available on every MP’s page.
However, as it’s been scraping/parsing the Register since 2000, we can do more than that. Each MP’s page contains a link to a page giving the history of their entry in the Register – when things were added, removed, or changed. You can also view the differences between one edition of the Register and the next, or view a particular edition in a prettier form than the official site. There’s a central page containing everything Register-related at http://www.theyworkforyou.com/regmem/
Update: The Telegraph posted a retraction yesterday.
You may have seen coverage on various websites saying that a civil servant was sacked after posting a comment on TheyWorkForYou.
We’ve no idea what this story is about, but we’re pretty certain it has nothing whatsoever to do with TheyWorkForYou. No journalist bothered to contact us before running the story.
- There is no comment on TheyWorkForYou containing the text quoted in that article, nor anything like it, nor has there ever been. Nor in fact (as we’ve checked), on HearFromYourMP, WriteToThem, or WhatDoTheyKnow.
- Only one comment has been left on any contribution by Hazel Blears in 2009, and it’s definitely not related to this.
- 27 comments were left on 13th May, the date the comment was apparently posted; we’ve read them all and they’re all nothing to do with this.
So frankly, we’ve no idea what’s going on.
What we do know is that the implication that mySociety would merrily hand over sensitive personal data that ends up in getting someone sacked, without fighting tooth and nail for their privacy every inch of the way, is a complete misinterpretation of the way we work and the things we hold most dear. No-one has ever contacted us to ask us to hand over such data, nor have we ever done so.
We think what might have happened is a simple mis-remembering of the website that contained the problematic comment. We’re hoping to get in touch with Lisa Greenwood so we can get full details before asking the various media companies that have run with this for a correction.
Richard Pope has been redesigning mySociety’s biggest site TheyWorkForYou.com for a couple of months.
He’s done a heroic job, as has Matthew with his epic import of Hansard data from 1935 onwards. TheyWorkForYou is a much better site for their combined work recently. We’ll be writing more on the historic stuff soon.
There are a few things I’d like from you as a member of the mySociety community:
1. Please say a big thanks to Richard. This was not an easy or relaxing task at all, and he’s done it brilliantly. Just check a Lords debate to see the attention to detail. We are a very lucky organisation to have him, as he’s always in demand.
2. Please give some constructive criticism on how it could be even better (please note, focussing on design here, we already have a load of feature priorities to deliver).
3. Anyone who could help supply a redesigned logo, or some nicely processed parliamentary-themed artwork to sit in the background grey-boxes on the homepage would be doing a very Good Deed for mySociety.
And lastly, please do pledge to become a TheyWorkForYou Patron, so we can keep doing things like this in the future!
- ‘Thumbs up’ by Carf (cc)
A few days ago mySociety asked the known possible candidates for Speaker to endorse 3 principles relating to making Parliament more transparent on the Internet.
We’ve now had endorsements which you can read on the individual pages of Sir George Young, Sir Menzies Campbell, Frank Field, Tony Wright and Sir Alan Beith , which until Parmijit Dhanda declared this morning, represented endorsement by 50% of the possible field. We also just recieved a typically frank and interrogative phonecall from Ann Widdecombe, who will be writing a formal response soon.
So, come on, John Bercow, Alan Haselhurst, Patrick Cormack, Sylvia Heal, and Chris Mullin. What’s holding up your replies? The days counter on your pages is telling the world how quick you are to respond…
Update: 11 June - John Bercow has now endorsed, and we’ve written to Margaret Beckett and Parmjit Dhanda, who’ve just declared their candidacies.
Update 2: Chris Mullin has told us he is ‘not a candidate’.
Update 3: Sir Alan Haselhurst has also endorsed.
Update 4 – Speaker Election Day: And Sir Michael Lord endorses too.
In less than 24 hours we’ve seen the first reply to our emails asking possible Speaker candidates to endorse our three principles. It is from Sir George Young – we’re looking forward to seeing the responses from the others that we wrote to.
Sir George is broadly supportive, which is great, and we’ve printed his reply in full on his own TheyWorkForYou MP page.
In the mean time, please do write to your MP and ask them to ensure that whoever they vote for, it is a candidate who has endorsed mySociety’s three simple principles, You really can have an impact on this issue: MPs are desperate to be seen to be acting for their constituents right now.
NB mySociety is strictly non-partisan and non-party aligned. We want all candidates from all parties to endorse these principles, and we have ensured that none of the wording of the principles leans towards any particular party or set of beliefs not connected to transparency in the modern age.
- Speaker’s Chair (Parliamentary Copyright)
mySociety has today emailed (and in one case, posted) a set of 3 Principles which we believe it is important that all candidates for Speaker endorse, before the election of a new Speaker by MPs.
1. Voters have the right to know in detail about the money that is spent to support MPs and run Parliament, and in similar detail how the decisions to spend that money are settled upon.
2. Bills being considered must be published online in a much better way than they are now, as the Free Our Bills campaign has been suggesting for some time.
3. The Internet is not a threat to a renewal in our democracy, it is one of its best hopes. Parliament should appoint a senior officer with direct working experience of the power of the Internet who reports directly to the Speaker, and who will help Parliament adapt to a new era of transparency and effectiveness.
We will be posting the status of requests on the likely candidates web pages where we expect large numbers of people to see them before the vote in late June. We have also taken the unusual step of allowing possible candidates to leave a statement of up to 150 words on the principles.
(NB no candidates have actually declared at this stage, so we are starting with the BBC’s list of possibles)
mySociety helped lead the campaign back in January to prevent the last ditch attempts to conceal MPs’ expenses. We did so not because, like the newspapers, we wanted to revel in embarrassment and scandal, but because we believe that in the Internet age, the only way for our democracy and government to thrive is if they are open and connected to the net as the rest of us expect them to be. The dramatic events seen in Parliament in recent days vindicate the view that secrecy breeds poor policies and seeds untrustworthy behaviour in the weaker willed.
Furthermore, more than a simple attitude of openness is required of the new Speaker: the public needs a genuine will to push for technological reform using the power of the Internet that will take both open-mindedness and a willing to tread on toes, especially in some parts of the unelected establishment.
Case in point: Over the last two years we have been trying to persuade Parliament to acknowledge that the way it publishes its Bills online is hopelessly inadequate for the Internet age. The campaign has faltered, despite multi partly endorsement from 140 MPs and a campaign membership of thousands. To see why, just take a look at this colourful and error-crammed internal email that we uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act, published for the first time today.
The new Speaker will have a tough job on their hands to overcome resistance of this kind. The best thing we can do is help the new Speaker, whoever they are, assume their new job with a clear mandate from the public, as well as from members.
That is why, as a final part of this call, we are asking you, our community, to write to your MP today to let them know that you expect them to vote for a candidate that has endorsed the principles above. Your voices to your own constituency MPs can resonate in a way that no blog post or newspaper article ever can. Go to it.
UPDATE: If you approve of what we did this week, and what to help make sure we can still do it in the future, please pledge to support us: http://www.pledgebank.com/supportmysociety
The vote on concealing MPs’ expenses has been cancelled by the government!
In other words – we won!
This is a huge victory not just for transparency, it’s a bellwether for a change in the way politics works. There’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the Internet has seen to that.
Over 7000 people joined a Facebook group, they sent thousands of emails to over 90% of all MPs. Hundreds of thousands of people found out about the story by visiting TheyWorkForYou to find something they wanted to know, reading an email alert, or simply discovered what was going on whilst checking their Facebook or Twitter pages. Almost all of this happened, from nowhere, within 48 hours, putting enough pressure on Parliament to force change.
Make no mistake. This is new, and it reflects the fact that the Internet generation expects information to be made available, and they expect to be able to make up their own minds, not be spoon fed the views of others. This campaign was always about more than receipts, it was about changing the direction of travel, away from secrecy and towards openness.
Today we stopped moving in the wrong direction. Tomorrow we start moving the right way. Sign up to our news mailing list (box on the right) to get updates on what mySociety gets up to.